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Another Casualty of the Academic Job Market? The Relatable Professor

From "Scholars at a Lecture," William Hogarth 1736

The tightening academic job market is of great concern for professional historians. It is very important that younger faculty are able to secure positions. But while we often think about the effects of the job market on faculty, we rarely consider the consequences for students. Replacing older faculty with younger may benefit students in many ways. As faculty age, it can be harder to understand students—their slang, their technology, their cultural references. Seemingly classic in-class jokes begin to fail. It might seem as though the loss of older faculty means fewer misunderstandings, but it’s also possible that as an older generation is nearing and hitting retirement, our students are actually losing some of faculty who are ultimately most relatable to them.

For faculty under a certain age, sitting around with the faculty closer to retirement can be kind of a shock. You’ll hear people talk about getting “C” averages in college. You might hear of some other careers people briefly pursued or some “lost years” in their twenties. You’ll likely hear more idiosyncratic opinions and potentially less about publishing. Even in 2010, Louis Menand was able to write in The Marketplace of Ideas that “the road to a professorship is much steeper than it was fifty years ago.” It’s very steep now. There are fewer non-PhDs teaching at universities and fewer of those people who wax eloquent and inspire students but publish very little. People from a gentler GPA era may not always be professionally the most impressive, but they are very important for the profession.

While the higher expectations today result in more accomplished faculty, it may also mean that the person at the head of the room has little in common with most of the people in it. Already faculty are likely to be experts and enthusiasts on subjects that students may not equally love. Younger faculty are also people who tend to have held high grades from high school and are increasingly from privileged backgrounds. There is a decline in first-generation faculty and probably fewer people who seem fun to know if you’re 18-22 and not interested in a PhD yourself.

We rightly consider the importance of representation in the classroom and higher ed, but in certain respects we are turning out factory-issued faculty. Almost everyone has been on about a ten to fifteen year quest for academic excellence. Almost everyone is living with a “publish or perish” mentality. The professional values and objectives are largely the same everywhere. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud suggested that the whole of Western society could be considered neurotic. One could make a similar argument about academia.

Consider the profession-created hurdles that faculty face in relating to students. If it is increasingly difficult for one-time average students to become PhDs, how well can faculty sympathize with our students who are academically struggling or indifferent? If PhDs are increasingly the children of PhDs, how can we relate to our students who see academia as a strange place? If only those who publish are employable, how can we relate to our students who will never aspire to write? Is there anyone teaching us how to do well in these areas? None of this is insurmountable, but it is worth remembering that this is another way in which students might look to the front of the room and see someone with no resemblance to themselves.

Faculty don’t have to be entirely relatable to teach—thank goodness—but there is no doubt that a relatable teacher can make a real difference in the classroom. People talk about presidential candidates having an advantage if they seem like someone it would be fun to “have a beer with.” The same may be true for faculty. Most people who developed an interest in a particular field were inspired at some point by a teacher. Students can be motivated to develop passions for subjects by teachers who can communicate that passion. That communication is easier when faculty can relate to student perspectives, and vice versa.

Thanks to the tight job market, universities are basking in the glory of hires who excel in all ways academic. They might want to consider how a generation of all-stars fits into the classroom. If the fit seems awkward, professors and institutions should do things to make it better. If we have little in common with most of our students, the classroom will be a poorer place.